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International Students as Political Pawns . . . Again

On July 6, 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an order[1] requiring international students at institutions of higher education to enroll in face-to-face classes for the fall semester or return to their home countries. Rescinded a week later in response to lawsuits from universities across the country, the directive sought to reinforce two policy initiatives. First, it pressured universities to fully reopen despite their reluctance to do so in the face of the pandemic. Second, it aimed to create another barrier to entry into the United States. The DHS’s recent order, however, was not the first time that the U.S. government had attempted to use international students to bolster interests.

During the Cold War, the United States seized on international students as political instruments in its worldwide strategy of communist containment. Whereas before the Second World War, the government permitted and tolerated the entry of foreign students, the Cold War created a global battleground for hearts and minds that utilized international students in order to gain an American advantage. The U.S. State Department and the United States Information Agency (USIA) transformed foreign students from exotic features of elite universities into important vehicles in the containment of Soviet and Chinese communist expansion and influence. The State Department hoped to groom U.S.-educated students who would eventually become government leaders in their own countries, and voice support for American foreign policy plans at the United Nations and through mutual cooperation. The USIA harnessed the experiences of international students at American universities for use in its sweeping program of public diplomacy.

Pakistani students from Lahore at Columbia University Teacher’s College in New York, 1952. Source: 306-PS-52-6901; NACP Still Pictures Division.

Part of my work examines the history of Pakistani and Indian university students in the United States in the early Cold War decades.[2] By the mid-1960s, U.S. government officials largely discontinued their use of the term “foreign student,” preferring instead the Cold War neologism, “international student”—a symbolic and strategic shift that evoked a sense of fellowship between the United States and other nations. International students were now Cold Warriors, and they would help foster a “better understanding” with “friendly” (non-communist) nations.[3] In particular, the USIA and the State Department came to consider these students potentially invaluable witnesses to American habits, attitudes, policies, and thoughts. Sharing examples of international student life in promotional materials such as photographs and interview clips, the USIA endeavored to shape public opinion of the United States abroad. USIA exhibits held on foreign college campuses around the world promoted American higher education but with the goal of casting it as superior to Soviet education.

International students were now Cold Warriors. . .

After graduation, international students served as unofficial goodwill ambassadors for the American State in their home countries. There, they were invited by local USIA posts to speak with local audiences about their impressions and experiences at American universities. Because former international students were fellow nationals, their experiences abroad lent their narratives an air of authenticity; through them, America gained credibility with skeptical foreign audiences.[4] USIA officers viewed the graduates as “play[ing] a vital interlocking role between local[s]…and Americans” by challenging communist, anti-American propaganda.[5] P.T. Joseph, an Indian alumnus of Wayne State University, strongly believed that “the Indian student who returns after higher studies in America is perhaps the best advocate of the American system of University education”—and by extension, of America itself.[6] The example of M.A. Azam bears this out. Azam returned to Dacca after studying and living in the American Midwest for five years. Speaking at the USIA auditorium in 1954 in front of an audience of one hundred East Pakistani educators, students, government officials and other invited guests, Azam cited the “human character” of an American nation “inspired by patriotism, fraternity, charity, and other laudable human traits, [more] than any other country.”[7]

Because former international students were fellow nationals, their experiences abroad lent their narratives an air of authenticity; through them, America gained credibility with skeptical foreign audiences.

Kamala Bhoota, Indian student at the University of Michigan, speaks at a panel discussion titled, “The Indian Student in America” during America Week, a USIS Bombay event in October 1948. Source: 306-PS-49-1549; NACP Still Pictures Division.

One USIA official emphasized the “tremendous responsibility” that international students had to communicate America’s “lasting values” to their compatriots.[8] Maintaining the position of his postwar predecessors, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to international students visiting the White House in 1967, informing them that their “education is a solemn trust. It carries the responsibility of a lifetime of service to your own country and to the world.”[9] The role of international students in U.S. public diplomacy programs was a Cold War strategy consistent with American geopolitical aims.

The recent DHS order also pulled international students into the orbit of U.S. policy goals. By seeking to strong-arm colleges and universities into fully reopening in the fall, the order leveraged the substantial tuition dollars that international students inject into the university budget. Additionally, as the current administration endeavors to restrict immigration through walls and laws, it views the entry of international students as a bidirectional breach in the fortification of its national borders. By this logic, not only does the education of foreign nationals in the United States provide a pathway toward permanent residence in the country, it also purportedly facilitates the “leaking” of American knowledge into other countries. In the contemporary turn to isolationism, international students are regarded as neither a boon to America’s global standing nor as vital to the creation of an intellectually vibrant campus community; rather, they are treated as entirely expendable—as a problem to be eliminated. Whether during the Cold War or the current pandemic, international students’ presence in the country is manipulated to suit the purposes of the United States’ shifting political agenda.

Uzma Quraishi is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University and author of Redefining the Immigrant South: Indian and Pakistani Immigration to Houston during the Cold War. Her recent article, “Racial Calculations: Indian and Pakistani Immigrants in Houston, 1960-1980” earned an honorable mention for the Carlton C. Qualey Memorial Article Award. She is a former Summerlee Fellow for the Study of Texas History at the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University.

[1] https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/sevp-modifies-temporary-exemptions-nonimmigrant-students-taking-online-courses-during

[2] The Cold War-related content of this blog post is based on the author’s work, Redefining the Immigrant South: Indian and Pakistani Immigration to Houston during the Cold War (University of North Carolina Press, 2020). https://uncpress.org/book/9781469655192/redefining-the-immigrant-south/

[3] “Suggested Reply,” Brubeck to O’Donnell, August 21, 1962, Box 1081, 1960-63 Central Decimal File, RG 59, NACP.

[4] Williams in Am Consul Gen Dacca to Dept of State, 1955–1959 Central Decimal File, Box 2227, RG 59, NACP.

[5] Foreign Service Despatch from Cultural Affairs Officer Edwin C. Kirkland in Am Con Gen Bombay to DOS, August 2, 1955, Folder: India Records-1955, Box 11, P265: Records Relating to India 1952–1956, RG 306, NACP,

[6] P.T. Joseph, The Amiable American (Trivandrum, India: St. Joseph’s Press, 1963), 38.

[7] “A Pakistani Looks at America,” text of M.A. Azam speech, Foreign Service Despatch from USIS Dacca to USIA Washington, December 3, 1954, P267: Records Related to Pakistan 1952–1955, Box #2, RG 306, NACP.

[8] “USIA: Incoming Telegram,” June 14, 1955, Box 2, P267: Records Relating to Pakistan 1952–1955, RG 306, NACP.

[9] Lyndon Baines Johnson quoted in Teresa Brawner Bevis and Christopher J. Lucas, International Students in American Colleges and Universities: A History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 157.

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